In September 2006, UNITE HERE Local 11 organized what was likely the largest act of civil disobedience in Los Angeles History. Union members, faith leaders, elected officials, and community allies joined in a large march to protest low wages at corporate hotels along Century Blvd outside of Los Angeles International Airport. The protest demonstrated the union’s ability to build a broad coalition in support of worker and immigrant right at a time when the union was negotiating with hotel employers over a new contract. Building on the themes of the spring 2006 immigrant rights marches, Century Blvd. marchers also evoked the civil rights movement. The slogan “I am a Human Being” echoed the famous message Memphis sanitation workers strikers of 1968, “I am a Man.” Over 300 demonstrators were arrested by Los Angeles Police and bused to Van Nuys for processing. Produced by UNITE-HERE Local 11, this film combines TV news footage, interviews, and street scenes to document the union’s mass action on Century Blvd.
On May 1, 2006 hundreds of thousands marched in Los Angeles and other large U.S. cities in support of immigrant rights. Called by many “A Day without an Immigrant,” the May Day protests were the culmination of months of planning in response to a punitive immigration bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 4437). This video is from the Los Angeles Independent Media Center (IMC, http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/05/156112.php). Independent media in LA and elsewhere was an important venue for social movement news in the early 2000s, but in Los Angeles the large crowds were also mobilized by Spanish-language commercial radio and television stations that embraced the call to oppose H.R. 4437.
Rocio Sáenz recalls the spirit of solidarity among unions in the early 1990s
I come from Mexico City, and I had a union there. Even though, looking back at the unions in Mexico, they were often very corrupt, at the time I thought it was better than nothing. When I came to the U.S., I did a lot of different jobs. I was a domestic worker, I was a salesperson in a store, and stuff like that. But I wanted to be in a unionized workplace, and so I was trying to get a job through a local union. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as being an organizer, but I was making posters and banners for he ILGWU. A few months later, I met someone in Local 11 of HERE and they hired me. Even then, for a few months, I didn’t do organizing. I didn’t even know what it was. But then I got very involved.
I saw a different way to organize [in HERE]. To bring the trust back from the members, and to show that this was a different union. In any organizing drive, you have to show the workers that, yes, you can make a difference. Little victories that you have to deliver, in order to say there is a change. It has to be very, very specific and concrete. And you have to see things as industry-wide. When I was with HERE I remember organizing my first hotel, reorganizing it for the first time in then years. That was in Manhattan Beach, close to the airport. We did it through elections. Well we organized 300 workers, and that was not going to make a big difference for the industry. You have to look at the whole industry, instead of one single work site. You have to do it in a market competitive way. If you’re going to organize, it has to be like all of downtown L.A. has got to go union. It has to be a long-term plan It takes a lot of effort, a lot of persistence, and a lot of resources.
“You’ve got to keep the heat on in different ways, and you’ve got to be very unpredictable
— Rocio Sáenz
Cristina Vázquez on the lessons of organizing immigrant workers in the 1970s
In 1976, when I started working for the ILGWU, we had several thousand members, but for ten years they had hardly organized a shop. The union had not paid much attention to the situation in L.A. … but then the ILGWU decided to bring an organizing director from back east, Phil Russo. He was an organizer himself and he had a vision. He thought there was a lot of potential here, and he said he was going to find and hire the best organizers. He started going to the universities and recruiting people who were active in political groups. He put a team together, and among them was my husband, Mario F. Vázquez, who had just graduated from UCLA law school after emigrating from Mexico at age 15. He saw this ad, “Organizers Needed at ILGWU.” At the time he was doing some volunteer work for CASA (Centro de Acción Social Autónomo), the Chicano pro-immigrant organization, writing and translating for its newspaper, Sin Fronteras [Without Borders], and doing all this political work.
“This union was in front of the fight against employer abuses in the immigrant community”
In this excerpt of a 1995 speech on multi-union organizing strategy, David Sickler recounts the changing relationship between immigrant workers and organized labor in southern California and identifies some of the mistakes unions have made in their approach to immigrant workers. As the Regional Director for the AFL-CIO and head of the Los Angeles-Orange County Organizing Committee (LAOCOC), Sickler launched the California Immigrant Workers Association (CIWA) to organize undocumented workers into unions. This speech was delivered at the UCLA Labor Center.
Now I’m somebody who’s tried to organize immigrant workers in this town for 20 years. We’ve had some success here and there, but the movement’s never been able to prove to immigrant workers that it could deliver. That it could put its money where its mouth was.
Immigrant workers have always agreed with us philosophically. They know we’re advocates; they know we’re on their side. But they’ve been reluctant to get on board with us on a large scale because they’ve watched our failures. They know that some of our own unions in the past, when they’d go out and organize companies that had immigrant workers, if those workers went on strike and the employer replaced them with other immigrant workers, the union would call the INS and have the scab workers deported. The employer would then call the INS and have the strikers deported. That’s a great deal for immigrant workers. Welcome! Welcome to the institutions of the United States. But the labor movement changed its act in the 70s and the 80s, and we aren’t doing those kinds of things any more. Still, these workers just weren’t sure we could deliver. What happened with the signing of the Justice for Janitors contract sent shockwaves through the immigrant community in Southern California. It will never be the same, ever. Because about six months after the signing of that contract, 900 workers at American Racing Equipment in Rancho Domingas-and I’m telling you it’s 100 percent immigrant-staged a five-day walkout.
Now, I’m an organizer. I’m gonna tell you, 900 workers do not spontaneously walk out of a plant. There’s some leadership in there somewhere. There’s some organizing going on. You hear about hot-shop organizing? This was a super, super red-hot shop. These people organized themselves. And, of course, this is a classic example of how we as a movement respond. The day after 900 workers at American Racing Equipment go out on the street in a wildcat by themselves, 97 unions are out there with their jackets and their leaflets. “Join us; I’m with the Office Workers!” “Join us; I’m with CWA!” “Join us; I’m with the Steel workers!” “Join us; I’m with the IUE!” “Join us; we’re with UAW!”